Spec Ops: The Line Interview – Lead Writer, Walt Williams Shoots From the Hip
Written Saturday, February 11, 2012 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
Spec Ops: The Line is no ordinary military shooter. It wants to make you think before you squeeze the trigger and it also wants you to consider the consequences of your actions. It also wants to push you into tough situations where you might have to make moral decisions on the fly, sometimes without even realising that you've made a call in the heat of the moment.
We got to sit down at 2K Games' UK HQ to talk with the game's Lead Writer, Walt Williams to discuss penning those moral crossroads and the difficulty of dealing with such serious and mature subject matter in a genre that's usually all about delivering gung-ho action, not that it's shying away from throwing plenty of action-packed set pieces right into your face.
Read on to find out how Williams approached writing Spec Ops: The Line, fleshed out Walker as a character and dealt with those moral choices.
How was writing Spec Ops: The Line as a personal challenge?
Wow. I've actually haven't gotten that question before. Spec Ops has actually been a very interesting challenge in many different ways. Narratively we're trying to do something with Spec Ops that hasn't really been done with this particular genre before - and really any genre of video games at this point – which is to tell a story that takes the player down an emotional path that maybe they're not necessarily comfortable with. It's certainly not so much of a hero's journey, as a journey of these three men who find themselves in a bad situation. And in doing that, you have to balance a lot of stuff between the game being serious and being fun, which is a very difficult thing to balance with such a dark narrative, because it still has to work as a video game. If the gameplay isn't engaging in some way, you might not get to the end of the game as it is, as you might get bored or frustrated. So writing for Spec Ops, it was interesting to have to write to that kind of design, to balance the emotional aspect of the narrative with the gameplay.
Also in many respects, it's possibly – branching off slightly – the most personal thing I've ever written. I lived in Germany during the course of writing a lot of the story, and over that time I had quite a few personal things that arose, all of which involved getting through emotional situations to continue to do my job. I'd reflect that into some of the issues with the characters in the game, much like the particular scene you played today, which would floor most people and drive them into giving up. These men have to continue with their jobs and simply carry it with them, which is what we were going for with that moment and a lot of the moments in the game. There are choices to be made, but there are also those moments like in life where something broadsides you from out of nowhere. Everything up until that point might be fine, but then your whole world is turned upside down and there's nothing you could have done about it beforehand and the only thing you can do afterwards is try and live with it.
We want to put the player in those situations, so that after that point where they're continuing their journey with these characters and they're faced with more choices and situations where other people's lives are hanging in the balance, they will feel more emphatic and think more about the decisions they make in the game. To be honest, it's a very difficult thing to promise and you never really know how it's going to affect people when it's done. The hope is that it'll affect everyone in their own personal way.
Are we going to encounter a lot of these moral choices in the game and will there be much in the way of flexibility offered to the player in how they deal with them?
Let's just say that there are quite a few. But what we wanted to do with the moral choices in the game was instead of creating a systemic structure where you know what the moral choice is going to be and they fall under the 'hit A' or 'hit B' good/bad category and you always know the outcome. What we wanted to create was kind of a moral tableau, where moral dilemmas grow organically out of the situation that you are in narratively in the moment, and some of them are different. Some of them are more explained, so you can see the scene as it's unfolding in front of you and try and figure out what the consequences of your actions might be one way or the other. The choice isn't necessarily laid out for you, telling you what you can and cannot do, so based on the information you have, you can figure out how to insert yourself into the situation.
Other situations will throw moral choices at you in the middle of combat super-fast, and you may not even realise that it was a moral choice at all until it's over and you may not have any idea what the consequences may be until afterwards, when you realise, “oh shit. I didn't even know what was happening.” It's meant to be knee-jerk, because that's real life. Things can come at you like that and the consequences result in some branching in the game, but it's not like for this choice you get a weapon or you get faction points. We wanted the choices to have not only consequences for the character, but also have consequences for the player, leading them into situations where they'll have to experience the consequences of the choice they made and move on.
Was it always part of the remit during Spec Ops' development to tell a hard-hitting, gritty story?
Yes. And we've been extremely lucky that 2K has been very open to doing something different. We knew in advance that we were going to be doing a third-person military shooter and I went off to develop some ideas and Yager went off to develop some ideas of what we exactly we would want to do within that genre. When we came back together, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we were essentially looking at the same thing. The military shooter genre has many spectacular examples within the genre, but there was something that up to this point they had never gone into, so it's been very much on the level of just being a game.
The truth of the matter is that we've reached the point within this industry where we like to proclaim that games are art, but also at the same time, the violent video game discussion always comes up and people tend to raise their hands in outrage and scream. It doesn't matter, it doesn't affect me. Yet it seems weird to me that you can't say you're making art, but you also can't say that you're not affected. Those two things don't go hand in hand. Art has to affect in some way, whether it be good or bad. That's something that we wanted to do in the genre that no one had done before. To actually sit down and think about what you're doing in this world and doing the military shooter – which is a rather popular genre – we're getting more people to sit down and experience it.
Ultimately, I feel that what we've done with Spec Ops...while it is a game and it is engaging, it's an experience and we're hoping that at the end, everyone will have had their own journey and come out of it at the end thinking differently about what they've done and what they've experienced.
During our hands-on and in the video sequences we saw at the end of the demo, we got the impression that Spec Ops: The Line sometimes veers off into some fairly surreal places. Is that a fair assumption to make?
There is a sense of that, yes. You reach a point where if you're in a bad enough situation and it just keeps getting worse, things become surreal because you're no longer seeing things with a clear head or no longer the person you were at the beginning. And the human mind is interesting like that. It's incredibly fragile, but at the same time it's resilient enough to almost block out the things it knows may break it. In a lot of ways what's happening here, is the characters are... I'm hesitant to use the term PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), because it's not 'post' as you're in the middle of a mission, but also what we had to do with the game, since you are still physically separated from your avatar, to make the player feel the emotion we want them to feel, things had to become very hyper-realised.
It's certainly not an accurate representation of PTSD, but these characters are traumatised later on in the game. They are scarred beyond a point of possibly ever being able to be fixed. You've seen them at the beginning, and they're normal, happy, fun-loving soldiers doing they're job, and by the end all three of them (Walker, Lugo and Adams) are very different people. They are a squad that has fractured both as a unit and as three individuals, which has been a very interesting thing to experience with these three characters.
Based on what we've played of the game so far, Walker seems to keep a lot of what he's thinking and feeling to himself. He seems very stoic while the other guys are falling apart and losing it. Is Walker always going to be the strong, driving force who's always determined and keeping things moving?
The thing with Walker...and this is something I'd noticed had never really been done in a game and I can understand why, because you want the player character to have a certain level of charisma and attraction, but Walker is the commander of this unit and as a commander, you have to have a certain level of professional distance from your squad. And in many ways that's what you're seeing from Walker in those moments. He has to be the one who keeps it together, because if he breaks then everything falls apart. He still has his moments, because the man's not a machine.
We have in the game, two different types of intel items to collect. One is the basic kind of intel item that players are used to: something from the past with a little backstory that's been left behind. The other type of intel items that we have are items from the world that Walker will pick up and instead of it having some kind of backstory attached to it, what you're getting is Walker's insight into the moment as he's looking at it. That's how we're expressing more of Walker's internal emotions that he could not express outwardly to his squad. You get a lot of how he changes throughout the game attached to that.
There's one intel item in particular that I'm thinking of, if you pick it up and look at it, he comes to a realisation about something that has already occurred, and he'll look back upon that event differently. In that intel item he essentially decides to keep the information to himself, because he doesn't want Adams and Lugo to have to carry the weight of that. He chooses to carry it for them and simply goes forward with that information. Walker has that stoic outward nature, but we're also giving you these moments to be able to get inside his mind to see his process and purpose behind that outwardly stoic nature.
A lot of military games usually get military advisors and consultants in to help on the gameplay side of things, but for Spec Ops, did you talk to ex-military veterans to gain more of an insight into the psychological aspects and how war has affected them?
To an extent. We did have a military advisor on the game, but a lot also comes from my own personal experience, coming from a military family and spending a very brief amount of time in the military. I'm not saying I'm a military person. Having friends who stayed in the military and seeing them come back from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seeing how they had changed gave me a lot of drive and inspiration to want to explore that in the game. Outside of that, I wouldn't say I necessarily tracked down other veterans to interview. It's a very delicate, very personal issue to discuss and I didn't want to mine someone's personal pain for this. There was research, but not anything that would have felt personally invasive to anyone.
Given the topical nature of the game and some of the shocking imagery you encounter, are you bracing yourself for controversy or some sort of moral outcry when Spec Ops launches?
We're certainly prepared for it. When you release something of this nature, you're always trying to think ahead to how people may react to it. That said, there's nothing that's been put into the game to simply shock. Everything has a very specific purpose, which is why none of it is skippable. You're meant to see it all the way through. I believe that when people sit down and play through the game as a whole and take it as a whole work of art, while you may personally be upset by it, I don't believe it's anything that requires public outrage. It's meant to make you feel something, but it's not meant to be exploitative and I believe people are going to see that once they get their hands on it and play it the way it's supposed to be experienced.
I was worried about the way we were going to be presenting it to you guys today, because you're taking it (the demo section) out of context and not getting the full experience of playing and building up to that moment. The way it's designed is, you'd come into the game, everything seems kind of familiar, you feel like you know what's coming and we're slowly pulling that rug out from underneath you, until the moment when it's completely gone and you don't know where you are anymore, you don't really know what's happening or where you're going. That takes you on this other journey. I can certainly see how strictly taken by itself without context, what we've shown today could be misconstrued, but it's meant to be a moment of change for the player and the character. Very unfortunately, these things happen and in this case it happens because of the character's actions, but it's not really anyone's fault. So, we'll see, but people will hopefully react in a positive way.
Spec Ops: The Line is out in spring 2012.